I remember driving by my old house a few years ago. It looked like nothing had changed. The yard was still a patchwork of weed, grass and brown. There was still a hole in the siding from a wayward arrow. Our name was still on the mailbox years after we left. Behind us a Confederate flag was suspended in a garage. Our old neighbor’s semi cab was pressed against the curb. It felt like a culture shock after years in college; it felt familiar all the same.
* * *
It’s been years since my first trip to the South. Or, well, my first memorable trip back to the South (I’m Virginia born and Wisconsin raised, with a few stops in between). We passed through the crystal haze of the Smokey Mountains, cutting through coal country and Waffle Houses alike as we dipped into the emerald bread basket of the Shenandoah Valley. There were Confederate cemeteries every couple of miles, tossed between the white chapels and local stores. Store owners and passersbys all greeted you with a smile, and the air was as sharp as it was warm. Mountains and forests gave way to metropolises; Atlanta and Richmond gave way to highways that led past Yorktowns and Williamsburgs to sapphire seas. They were some of the most gorgeous roads I’ve ever traveled.
One day in Georgia we ate lunch at Stone Mountain, beneath the generals and leaders of Southern rebellion, beside the battle standard of the Confederate States of America and the stars-and-stripes of the United States.
* * *
The Drive-By Truckers love the South. They write songs about Lynyrd Skynyrd and Steve McQueen, about falling in love and riding into the Alabama sunset in the cab of an 18-wheeler. They’ll howl like grizzled heirs to (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) and reclaimed “Sweet Home Alabama” as the conscious stomper everyone forgot. Of course there’s whiskey and trailers; there’s also songs about George Wallace. The Drive-By Trucker’s world heard racism in a Southern accent; their South was the South of both Jefferson Davis and Martin Luther King, Jr.
American Band comes as the South returns to headlines. Confederate flags that hung above statehouses are being lowered one last time; meanwhile, they spread across northern yards like wildfire, punctuating a Southern heart in people who’ve never even set foot on Kentucky bluegrass. Voting regulations are recalling Jim Crow, and “stand your ground” has become synonymous with “license to kill.” We can talk about Milwaukee and Madison, but Fergusson and Baltimore always come first. And now we’re in a messy election of populism and tabloids, where even the red heart of the South is on the front lines.
Drive-By Truckers have always been political. They’re the band that fires up burners about Southern conscious and revelry, both glories and guilt (even if singer Patterson Hood has traded Birmingham for Portlandia). There’s war stories of old Drive-By Trucker shows that had whipped their audiences into a fury over Ronald Reagan critiques (“Putting People on the Moon”) and Black Lives Matter flags draped over keyboards like retired battle standards.
American Band is of the same tradition, leading off with the reverberating crunch of “Ramon Casiano” – a railroad rocker about a real-life Mexican boy killed on the border by a younger Harlon Carter in 1931. These stories, nuanced moments of grander dialogues, make up the bulk of American Band. “Guns of Umpqua” is a tender song of a veteran’s conscious tossed between blue skies, a feint war and an Umpqua classroom one October day. The one-two punch “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” and “Surrender Under Protest” lower a rebel flag tangled around six decades of a wounded Southern pride. “Baggage” is a chugging guitar slugger touched off by a synthesizer suite and Hoods gritty lungs that snakes through mental health in America (by way of Robin Williams’s and Hoods’s own depression).
The back-half of American Band is where Drive-By Truckers sink in to a more plain-clothed voice, trading muscly rock hooks and the rollicking four-fours for a softer tone. “What it Means” is one of the most straightforward songs in their catalog, a simple give-and-take folk song celebrating the failure to question racism in America: “I mean Barrack Obama won and you can choose where to eat, but you don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street.” The follow up is “Once They Banned Imagine,” a meditation on the culture wars of patriotism, a ballad from when you wouldn’t hear John Lennon on a radio.
American Band can come across as uneven. “What It Means” sounds blunt for a band known for its finesse. “Darkened Flags” and “Surrender Under Protest” easily out-strut the other rockers on the album, and are maybe the only pair of songs that feel at home next to each other on the album. “Kinky Hypocrite” is a refresher on its own, but sounds stunted next under the shadow of “Filthy and Fried” before it and “Ever South” after, and “Sun Don’t Shine’s” tequila sunrise drifts into the shuffle of American Band’s slurry core.
But the Truckers handle politics with a kind of empathy needed in today’s spitfire world, always taking a more patient look at their characters and endowing even their most obvious villains with some sense of understanding. Hell, they even made a story about George Wallace hilarious. It helps they have a hometown voice for their subjects; Drive-By Truckers is about as Southern as a highway Waffle House. It’s a voice that’s afforded them the nuance that’s made them so vital as songwriters these past few years. That voice has never been more apparent than “Ever South,” the centerpiece of American Band that wrestles with Southern identity in 2016. Tracing the Irish from Ellis Island to Alabama, the Truckers wrestle with Southern heritage and all of its subtle hopes and stained histories. “Stories of our fathers and glories of our house,” Hood sings behind his blue eyes and Irish complexion. “Always told a little slower ever south.”
* * *
A friend and I talked about the South a couple days ago, some late night in a library. I mentioned it was strange for me to talk about: I haven’t been a Southerner in twenty years; I lost that right and that burden when my family moved North. But I remember snapshots of that place: lush mountains buried in clouds, awkward moments with family I haven’t seen since, a suffocating heat that people brave daily. I remember Stone Mountain just as much as Shenandoah; stars-and-bars just as much as Arlington.
My voice has never had a Southern accent, but my eyes do. They see my mom’s defensiveness when she’s asked about Georgia. They see separatist flags in union lawns alongside signs promising to “Make America Great Again.” They read books about “Northern Aggression…”
… and lyrics “ever South.”
It’s hard to think about the South.
The list of what the South is or is not, has or has not been historically, what it will or will not be, runs too long for a review like this, but suffice to say it’s an engrossing topic. Drive-By Truckers have spent much of their career thinking about the American South, being themselves Southern residents and (for the sake of pigeonholing) therefore a Southern rock band.
That being said, DBT have always, to my mind, successfully bucked the stereotypes of so-called “Southern rock,” including but not limited to: the escapades of good ol’ boys, cocksure alpha males in pursuit of quarry, prolonged Confederacy, and “sweet home” quiescence, among others. Any discussion of their new album American Band should hone in on that last point.
Part of the reason DBT have bucked those stereotypes is also a central part of their appeal: their status as a premier road band. Indeed, American Band has the all the associations (if not immediate atmosphere) of road music: anthems and ballads ready to kick and sweat on stage, chock-full of riffs that leave you screaming in recognition as they wash over you.
In my mind, there are two types of road bands: those whose eyes never leave it, and those whose eyes never fix on it; American Band exemplifies the latter tendency, as the band weaves numerous national strands into the fabric of their quote unquote Southern rock.
You may not note it at first when listening. At first blush, the music on American Band rings raucously Southern: blusey riffs, replete with strangulated slide, atop a sashaying country rhythm section, while reaching, drawling vocals cut through the mix.
But once the lyrics dawn on you (or once you’ve got them in front of you) you realize how harrowing these stories are. “Umpqua” sounds like a foreign country, but it’s actually about the community school shooting in Roseburg, Oregon October 1, 2015—a tribute made all the more poignant by Patterson Hood’s fleshed-out persona.
Some have called American Band the group’s most political album, and it’s hard to deny the messages on songs like opener “Ramon Casiano” (Ramon was a teenager  murdered in 1931 by future NRA leader Harlon B. Carter, who claimed self defense) and “Once They Banned Imagine” (a sometimes opaque but never lax meditation on the 2001 Clear Channel memorandum, released in response to 9/11),
Politics of a different sort are at the heart of the album’s lyric centerpieces, “Ever South” and “What It Means.” Both are history lessons—the former begins with Ellis Island, while the latter picks up the thread circa the 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting and (later) Ferguson—and both are troubling songs. Indeed, “What It Means” jarred me at first, its disquieting discussion leavened by a downright jaunty melody. But the lyrics grow on you, and by the end it delivers a pithy summary of so many current woes:
Astrophysics at our fingertips
And we’re standing at the summit
And some man with a joystick
Lands a rocket on a comet
We’re living in an age
Where limitations are forgotten
The outer edges move and dazzle us
But the core is something rotten
And we’re standing on the precipice
Of prejudice and fear
We trust science just as long
As it tells us what we want to hear
We want our truths all fair and balanced
As long as our notions lie within it
There’s no sunlight in our ass’
And our heads are stuck up in it
And our heroes may be rapists
Who watch us while we dream
But don’t look to me for answers
Cuz I don’t know what it means
American Band is out now, courtesy of ATO Records.